Fon Davis in a giant robot interior set for MORAV: Missions
Fon Davis has been working in the entertainment industry for nearly 25 years, during which time he has had a hand in more than 30 feature films, including Pearl Harbor, Starship Troopers, Galaxy Quest, Terminator III, Mission Impossible III, and the Star Wars and Matrix series. Fon has a diverse background that includes working at the Industrial Light and Magic model shop, serving as a concept designer and model maker for Disney, and contributing to acclaimed stop motion films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. Most recently, he served as the miniatures supervisor on The Big Miracle with Drew Barrymore, and Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming feature, Elysium, at Kerner FX.
In 2000, Fon founded his own studio, Fonco Creative Services, to run projects between features and develop his own training and science fiction content. He shares his experience in feature film development and hybrid visual effects through lectures and panels on the importance and relevance of practical effects and miniatures in today’s digital world. He recently released the first in a series of instructional DVDs called, “Fon Davis' Introduction to Professional Model Making,” which can be found on the Fonco Creative website. Today, I managed to sneak a few minutes of his time for a bit of Q & A.
When did you first become interested in model making and miniatures?
Around age three, I started taking things apart. Imagine my parent's frustration to have all of their electronics taken apart time after time. Anything from phones to clocks to radios was fair game as far as I was concerned. Eventually, to my family's great relief, around age five I learned how to put things back together. I was fascinated with how things were made and became obsessed with creating things. I would get in trouble at school for filling the margins of my schoolwork with drawings. I saw Star Wars and was completely blown away -- but it was not seeing Star Wars that gave me the bug, it was when I saw The Making of Star Wars. Even at the age of seven I could not imagine anything better than working in visual effects with miniatures.
Fon inside the Federation Hanger model during the shooting of The Phantom Menace
Later, the idea of working in miniatures was reinforced when I saw these three Asian guys working in special effects books and magazines. It was Larry Tan, Ease Owyeung and Greg Jein. I grew up in a conservative area where I was reminded daily I was a different color than the majority. I remember thinking -- cool, they will let me be a model maker, unlike my chances of becoming an athlete or rock musician. When I started at ILM, Larry was still working there. A few years later I got work with Ease on BattleBots, and I had dinner with Greg in LA when I was working on Christmas Carol. Things had come full circle, and now I’m hoping I can inspire young people to work hard and go after their passions too.
Bryan Dewe and Fon working on a battleship model for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor
How did you land your first job in FX?
I was doing freelance carpentry and remodeling Victorian homes in San Francisco in the late 80’s. Every time I was between projects I would check local film companies for job openings. The receptionists all knew me by name, but it was difficult because I had no portfolio. I even tried making a portfolio of things I made at home. Eventually a scenic company called Tech’nique hired me for one week to fill in for someone taking a vacation. I ended up building my portfolio there for nine months, making it much easier to get more work at other studios.
I ended up freelancing at eight different scenery shops, while getting as much work at (Colossal) Pictures as I could on music videos and commercials. (Colossal) Pictures is where I started in stop motion on Pillsbury Doughboy commercials with Henry Selick. Tim Burton and Henry Selick went to school together. Tim hired Henry to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. When Henry went to Disney for Tim, he took all of us with him. The Nightmare Before Christmaswas my first feature film experience and the most fun I have ever had, until I got to work with Disney again at ImageMovers Digital. If you get a chance to work for Disney, by the way, I’d say do it! It has been my experience that they understand you can be creative, have fun and still be and productive.
When I was on James and the Giant Peach at Disney I met Steve Gawley. That was amazing for me. In 1978 I had trading cards with Steve on them. He helped me get my first job at Industrial Light and Magic. I was at ILM for 10 years, except for the time I snuck out to work on the Matrixseries. I had to, right?
What do you love most about your job?
I love the variety of creative challenges. Directors and producers are often striving to do something new and different, so we are expected to do something new and different on almost every project. I really enjoy immersing myself in all these worlds and characters we are creating. On one project you’re on an alien planet, the next show you’re in ancient Egypt, then maybe you’re in World War II.
Fon Davis inside the particle accelerator model for Terminator 3
On the technical side, I think I entered into the business at the perfect time. I was able to build a solid foundation in practical film making and grow into the digital age. This has allowed me to learn a variety of skill sets in multiple disciplines. Now I can incorporate the best of both worlds in the projects we do.
I know many talented VFX artists who also happen to be incredible musicians, writers, actors, sculptors...the list goes on. Do you indulge in any other creative pursuits outside of VFX?
I most definitely pursue my own independent creative endeavors between client jobs. I create my own content. Yep, that’s right, I work for work and I work for fun. I love it all. I’ve created a giant robot science fiction graphic novel called MORAV that I am now turning in to a live action series. I have a few horror movies I am developing as well as a comedy television show. I also do education through panels and lectures in hybrid (practical and CGI) effects and training DVDs. You could say I like to keep busy.
Tell us a little about your workflow when designing models or practical FX.
Our workflow always starts with planning and discussing ideas with the best people on our team. We have to first decide what we are going to do using CG and what we are doing in reality with live action or miniatures. I feel strongly that you get the best results doing as much as you can full size in camera, alternatively use miniatures and then finally, use CG for what is truly impossible to get in camera. I'm afraid the baby was thrown out with the bath water when all these really great digital tools were developed. I feel a lot of people in FX are only working with half a toolbox if they only use one or the other discipline.
You've worked on a lot of amazing projects. Do you have a favorite? Why?
It's hard to pick favorites; they change depending on my mood. Today I’m going to say Starship Troopers because I can watch it a hundred times, it never gets old and was a blast to work on. As far as effects movies go, it represented a huge shift in the volume of effects in single film. There were something like nine or ten visual effects studios working on that film using a healthy mix of practical effects, miniatures and computer graphics. 15 years later Starship Troopersstill looks better than many effects films coming out now.
What are you up to these days? Any exciting projects in the works?
When Lucas sold their practical division that later collapsed and Disney shut down IMD, a group of us started working out of my studio. We’ve worked on mostly commercials and a handful of feature films we are not allowed to talk about. Of the projects we’ve done recently we are most proud of the Brisk Machete commercial. I also snuck off to work on Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, which is one of the coolest features I have seen in a long time. It’s an original story, not a sequel, remake or adaptation. One of the spacecraft models that my team and I created for Elysium was on display at the 2012 San Diego ComicCon.
A spacecraft model from Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium on display at San Diego ComicCon 2012
Do you have any advice for aspiring FX artists who want to work with models and miniatures?
My advice to aspiring FX artist is to put your head down and work. Don’t give up. Do the work because you love it, because you may or may not make good money on every job. The entertainment industry is tied in to the world economy in ways it has never been before.
Do some indie projects while you are looking for work. Study hard, even after you get a job. Always continue learning new skills. If you have a diverse skill set you will be more employable. I've found success learning about hybrid FX. If you know both practical and CG FX, you will do better quality work, and save your employers time which translates in to money. They will like that...
Also, stay out of office politics. Be a team player and let your work and kind nature speak for you. Be nice and helpful to everyone and never burn bridges. That production assistant who brought you lunch could be a director in few years.
Lauren Abrams and Fon Davis in on stage preparing to shoot a ship crash for The Big Miracle
For more info on Fon's work and Fonco Creative, follow the links below.
*All images (c) Fon Davis. All rights reserved.